On January 10, 1996 -- following the suicides-homicides of the Order of the Solar Temple in 1994 in Québec and Switzerland, and in 1995 in France -- a Commission of Enquiry on Cults of the French Parliament released a controversial report. "Cults" were defined as groups contrary to the public ethic, and a list of 172 "dangerous" cults was included (1). The document raised the almost unanimous opposition of the academic community (2), and the Conference of the French Catholic Bishops also published a rather critical document (3). Before academic and Church opposition caused some sober comments to appear in the French press, a number of articles and magazines had published sensational headlines on the "danger of the cults". More than half of these articles were illustrated with pictures of members and buildings of a single religious movement: the French-based Aumist Religion (no relations with Aum Shinri-kyo, the Japanese group accused of the 1995 Tokyo subway gas attack). This was, in itself, an interesting phenomenon, taking into account that the Aumist Religion is not a very large group, with less than one thousand members in France and a smaller constituency in Québec. The holy city of the Aumist Religion, the Mandarom (located near Castellane, in the Alps of Provence) was described as the very epitome of the danger of the cults, a concentration camp for the unfortunate "victims" and, at the same time, a base threatening the whole country. This was even stranger, considering that -- depending on the periods -- from 30 to 50 male and female monks live at the Mandarom. The Mandarom, in fact, has become a symbol of a national controversy. Its sin was its very visibility. Well before the Parliamentary Report, a campaign against the Mandarom had been launched by anti-cult organizations with the support of some groups of ecologists. Anti-cultists and ecologists make strange bedfellows, if one considers that the former have often attacked parts of the latter as "eco-cults". The case of Mandarom is unique also because the Aumist Religion claims to be pro-ecology itself, and proposes an "Aumist ecology for the Golden Age".
1. The Aumist Religion
The Aumist Religion has been founded by Mr. Gilbert Bourdin, born in Martinique in a Catholic family in 1923. Having studied law and medicine, Bourdin started a career in the French civil service and, at the same time, in the French esoteric milieu. He was initiated as a sannyasin by Sivananda in his Indian ashram in 1961, and visited a number of holy places in the East. Upon his return in France, he spent the winter 1962-1963 practising austerities in a cave in Vaucluse. Under the name of Hamsananda, he gathered some followers, particularly in Southern France, and became quite well-known as a yoga teacher. He later published eight books on yoga. The first of these -- Naturopathie et Yoga -- was particularly well received and later translated in Spanish, Dutch and Italian (4). In 1967 he established with his followers the Association of the Knights of the Golden Lotus. After a number of smaller centers in Southern France, he founded in 1969 the holy city of Mandarom Shambhasalem. Gradually, Bourdin revealed himself as the Cosmo-Planetary Messiah: the Lord Hamsah Manarah, the King of the universe unifying in his person all the religious traditions. In 1990 he was publicly crowned as the Messiah at the Mandarom; some of the ceremonies were open to the press. For the first time the constructions of the Mandarom became familiar to the French public. The holy city includes buildings for the monks and for the Lord Hamsah Manarah himself, temples representing all the great religious traditions of the world, and three huge statues of the Christ, Buddha and the Cosmo-Planetary Messiah himself. These constructions should have been crowned by a larger Temple-Pyramid, and an association to promote the building of this temple was established in 1991.
In a country were the controversy about the "cults" was particularly heated, the Mandarom with its huge constructions was simply too visible. Two TV networks, France 2 and TF1, started an anti-cult campaign exposing the Mandarom as a "cultic" concentration camp. Anti-cult activists such as the psychiatrist Jean-Marie Abgrall explained that "notwithstanding what they claim, cults are not religious movements, but rather criminal movements organized by gurus who use brainwashing to manipulate their victims" (5). The campaign was largely organized by ADFI (Association de Défense de la Famille et des Individus), the largest French anti-cult organization. From 1992 an Association de Défense des Sites du Verdon, an ecologist group led by Mr. Robert Ferrato, joined ADFI in its campaign against the Mandarom. Mr. Ferrato claimed that the Mandarom is an offense to the ecological equilibrium of the mountain, called for the cancellation of the building permission for the planned Temple-Pyramid, and went so far as to propose to destroy the Mandarom as a whole, or to seize it in order to be kept as a museum of the "horrors of the cults".
Public authorities in France have a record of taking seriously the anti-cult activists. The Mandarom was raided repeatedly between 1992-1995 by armed tax and police officers in a Waco style. ADFI, Mr. Ferrato and a reporter for the TV network TF1, Bernard Nicolas, played a key role in making a former member, Florence Roncaglia (whose mother is still with the movement), "remember" that she had been molested and raped by Bourdin in the 1980s. A complaint was filed in 1994, just before the expiration of the legal delay. Based on Roncaglia's complaint, the Mandarom was raided again on June 12, 1995 and Bourdin was arrested. The same day the Council of State should have rendered its final decision on the question of the building permission of the Temple-Pyramid (cancelled by the Court of Appeal of Lyon on December 20, 1994). The decision was delayed to June 14, and was finally unfavourable to the Aumist Religion. On June 30, 1995, Mr. Bourdin was released, and is currently awaiting trial. Problems have since emerged with the story of Ms. Roncaglia -- who has co-authored a sensational book, in fact ghost-written by Mr. Nicolas (6)-- but other women (some of them "discovered" by Mr. Ferrato) have in turn "remembered", in therapy or elsewhere, that they have been molested in the 1980s by Bourdin. Most serious for the Aumists is the fact that the Temple-Pyramid can no longer be built. In the Summer of 1995 the Cultural Association of the Temple-Pyramid and the Order of Knights of the Golden Lotus have been dissolved, and merged into a new Order of the Triumphant Vajra. The French tax authorities have now threatened to confiscate 60% of the donations made to the now defunct Cultural Association of the Temple-Pyramid.
2. Aumism and Nature
Aumism is organized around a small number of monks (living at the Mandarom and other centers, including one in Sainte-Lucie, Québec) and .a larger number of initiates, some of them bearing the title of "priests". Monks have a hierarchy distinguishing presads (novices), sadhaks and vedhyas. The starting point of the Aumist doctrine is the sound AUM, the source of all the universes. All the worlds are governed by the Law of the Cycles. They are born in a Golden Age, but -- due to the rebellious nature of humans and other spiritual entities -- all experience a decline. The Golden Age is, thus, followed by the Silver Age when the masters of wisdom and the buddhas prefer to rest in artificial heavens rather than working for preserving the integrity of the world. Their refusal of the effort is one of the ways karma is created. Still deeper is the decline in the Copper Age, where a corrupted science dominates and conquers the lazy hyperborean civilization of the Silver Age. In this age of science, a terrible fight starts between Lemuria and Atlantis (where the latter is the instrument of Hyperborea's revenge). Atlantis destroys Lemuria, but is in turn destroyed by the revolution of the Nature, no longer prepared to tolerate the tyranny of science. The destruction of Atlantis is the prelude to the fourth age, the Iron Age, dominated by the law of karma, division, war and religion turned to superstition. God incarnates himself in all the ages, and is at present on Earth as the Lord Hamsah Manarah to eliminate from all religions the elements corrupted and superstitious, to put an end to the Iron Age and the karma, and to usher the new Golden Age. After the Lord Hamsah Manarah has revealed himself as the Messiah, the law of karma is terminated and all souls could be purified and take their place in the Golden Age (or be destroyed if they refuse to submit). There is no question that the Golden Age will ultimately prevail on Earth, since the consequences of the Law of the Cycles are unavoidable. The acceptance or rejection of the Lord Hamsah Manarah as the Messiah may, however, influence whether the advent of the Golden Age will be immediate or delayed for a certain time (7).
Earth, in the Aumist doctrine, is a living being. All its elements are slowly evolving. Animals are connected to a group soul, but they eventually detach themselves from their group soul and prosecute their evolution as individuals. According to the Lord Hamsah Manarah, it will always be necessary to remember that "the roots of the Iron Age are in the relations between the animal kingdom and the human kingdom" (8). In the Copper Age deviant science has troubled also the animal kingdom, causing a reaction. Ill-treated animals may enter into demonic pacts with perverted human beings, decide not to eventually become humans, or -- if they decide to continue their evolution towards humanity -- try later to seek revenge (as humans) for what they had suffered when they were animals. The elementals of nature, including fairies and elves, are in a similar situation. For this reason in 1987 the Lord Hamsah Manarah has enacted a law regulating the relations between animals and humans and a "Code of Honour" for the humans regulating their relations with the Kingdoms of Nature. Animals should no longer enter into demonic pacts with perverted human beings, and humans should not cause the unnecessary suffering of animals (when their lives should be taken for absolute necessity, appropriate prayers should be said to appease their group soul). Technical devices threatening Modern Nature should not be used. The elementals of nature are also called to take their place in the Golden Age (9). In short, the Lord Hamsah Manarah thinks that "ecology, the protection of environment is an integral part of the Aumist mystic: humans can no longer exert their pressure on Nature and misuse its treasures. Aumism is here in order to help men, women and children of this Earth to realize the damage they cause to Earth continuing the anarchy of a society entirely devoted to consumption" (10). In the process of reconciliation between humans and nature, the role of the Lord Hamsah Manarah is all important. It teaches the agents of the karma of nature that they were right in destroying Atlantis and the Copper Age, a just punishment to a perverted science, but this time now approaches its end and nature and humanity should cooperate for the Golden Age (11).
3. Aumist Ecology and Anti-Cult Ecologists
The fact that it claims to be an ecological mystic has not prevented the Aumist Religion from building on a Provence mountain buildings and statues that may appear entirely out of touch with the local environment. At a first level, the controversy between the Aumists and some ecologists may be interpreted as the crash between two different visions of ecology. The ideal of a certain ecology is a nature taking care of herself. The Aumist idea of ecology is chain-connected to its religious vision of history. Nature, animals, elementals are themselves submitted to the karma of the Iron Age and could not be liberated without surrendering to God incarnated in the Lord Hamsah Manarah. Nature, not unlike humans, needs to pass through a sort of initiation to enter the Golden Age. The buildings and the statues at the Mandarom are crucial in order to perform this planetary initiation, and their existence is more beneficial to nature than any advantage that may have been secured by leaving as it was a remote area of the French mountains.
The conflict between two different visions of ecology is, however, only part of the story. In fact, most French ecological organizations did not care for the Mandarom for years. The corner of the mountain where the Mandarom is located is almost without inhabitants, invisible from the main roads, and not very large in extension. Ecologist associations were not wrong in thinking that a number of problem areas both larger and more crucial than the Mandarom exist in France. Mr. Ferrato's group and his activities could not be separated from anti-cult militancy, and it is not unfair to conclude that Mr. Ferrato's activity would not have lasted for long had he not received the support of ADFI and the larger French and international anti-cult network. In fact, Mr. Ferrato has ended up by dealing with problems unconnected with his ecological concerns, including whether memories of rape recovered in therapy, or within the frame of a dialogue with anti-cult activists years after the alleged facts, are valid and may be used as evidence in court. In the process Mr. Ferrato has transformed his ecological crusade against the buildings and the statues of the Mandarom in a personal vendetta against Gilbert Bourdin.
In the heated days following my public criticism (particularly at a press conference organized by CESNUR in Paris on February 6, 1996) of the French Parliamentary Report, largely covered by the French media, I have been repeatedly asked by the press whether I could exclude that Mr. Bourdin, in fact, molested some girls ten years ago, and whether the Aumists could react to the present tensions in a violent or dangerous way (the fact that the name of the Aumist Religion is similar to the Japanese group Aum Shinri-kyo has not helped their cause, but -- as mentioned earlier -- there are no relations). To the first question, my standard reply is that I have no evidence of what Mr. Bourdin, or anyone else, was or was not doing ten years ago. I am generally suspicious of memories of rape recovered or first told after a number of years, and used against religious or political leaders. The French press seems largely unaware of the debate in the United States in recent years, and of the increasing reluctance of U.S. courts to accept recovered memories (or, at any rate, memories that surfaced too late) as acceptable evidence (12). To the second question, I may now direct enquirers to a short essay by Luigi Berzano, a Roman Catholic priest and a professor of sociology of religion at the University of Turin. He has interpreted the French Report and, particularly, the controversy surrounding the Mandarom using the category of "putative deviance". This is a kind of deviance attributed by the media and society to groups serving the function of scapegoats. Originally, the deviance is a pure social construction, but to repeat indefinitely that a group is deviant and may be violent is a dangerous exercise in itself. It is not uncommon that, at least for some members of the group, the putative deviance may be converted into actual deviance. It is unpredictable how members of a group placed under extreme stress could react (13). The fact that, so far, Aumists have reacted calmly to what they could only perceive as persecution confirm that they have in fact be taught an ethic of non-violence. There is no way, however, of predicting the future, although on May 22, 1996 Mr. Bourdin announced his "proposal" to withdraw from public teaching, renounce his title of Messiah and "destroy or blow up the statues" (14). It is unclear whether this "proposal" is submitted to some conditions (e.g. allowing Mr. Bourdin to move abroad without prosecuting the pending legal actions, perhaps to Quebec where he has its largest center outside France and where tolerance of the so called "cults" seems -- at least for the time being -- higher than in France, ) and what will exacty be the fate of the Mandarom.
At any rate, the theme of nature rises to a metaphoric role in a battle where the question is not whether French zoning law really allowed the constructions at the Mandarom to be built, but who defines "nature" and whether "nature" is a sacred or a secular concept. Paradoxically, the popular magazine Paris-Match may have revealed what the Mandarom question is all about when it stated, after Bourdin had been arrested, that he may be innocent of the girls' rape but he is surely guilty of having raped a mountain (15)
2 A number of critical papers were later collected in Massimo Introvigne - J. Gordon Melton (eds.), Pour en finir avec les sectes. Le débat sur le rapport de la commission parlementaire, 3rd. ed., Paris: Dervy, 1996.
3 L'Eglise catholique et les sectes (February 6, 1996), republished in Introvigne-Melton, op. cit., pp. 351-353.
4 S.M. Hamsananda, Naturopathie et Yoga: Santé - Guérison - Bonheur, Paris: Éditions Albin Michel, 1976.
5 "Sans aucun doute", TF1, February 2, 1995.
6 Florence Roncaglia, with Bernard Nicolas, Mandarom. Une victime témoigne, Paris: TF1 Éditions, 1995.
7 For the Aumist view of the history and the Law of the Cycles see Hamsah Manarah, La Loi d'évolution des âmes. De l'esclavage à la vraie Libération, La Baume de Castellane: Éditions du Mandarom, 1992.
8 Hamsah Manarah, L'Aumisme. La doctrine de l'Age d'Or, La Baume de Castellane: Éditions du Mandarom, 1991, p. 196.
9 Ibid., pp. 203-209.
10 Ibid., p. 198.
11 Hamsah Manarah, La Loi d'évolution des âmes. De l'esclavage à la vraie Libération, op. cit., p. 254.
12 For a discussion and bibliography see my Il sacro postmoderno. Chiesa, relativismo e nuova religiosità, Milan: Gribaudi, 1996.
13 See Luigi Berzano, "'La déviance supposéee dans le `phénomène sectaire': l'exemple de la religion aumiste", in Introvigne - JMelton (eds.), Pour en finir avec les sectes., op. cit., pp. 315-320.
14 Religion de l'Aumisme, Communiqué de presse, 22 mai 1996.
15 Marc-Edouard Nabe, "Castellane, la montagne violée", Paris-Match n. 2405, June 29, 1995, pp. 77-79 and 102.
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